A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. This essay is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might need to know. And one thing everyone ought to know is how to claim credit for their accomplishments. But, you know, in a nice way.
This isn’t just a social nicety or something you do to salve your ego. It’s a real survival issue, particularly if you want promotions and the fun things (money, respect, and power) that come with more responsibilities. People who don’t claim credit for their work don’t get these things as reliably as people who do. Fortunately there are three simple rules for claiming credit, and they come with equally simple rules for how to do so in a nice way.
So why be nice? No, seriously, this is a real point. Why does it matter if we’re nice about claiming credit? Isn’t the point simply to get ahead? Why should we care what others think about how we get ahead? Are we not in competition with our coworkers? Isn’t it true that nice guys finish last??!
Slow your roll, Satan. The short answer is that yes, it very much matters what your coworkers think of you. If you don’t believe me, do yourself a favor and pay careful attention to how the water cooler talk affects job responsibilities at your job. Most of the time, assholes get sidelined. Sometimes they get promoted, sure, but that’s often simply a case where being an asshole is an asset in their new position.¹
But most of the time, they get sidelined, whispered about, and eventually pushed out. No one likes working with an asshole, and unless your plan is to bounce from job to job every year for the rest of your life, or be stressed out every day, that’s a serious point in favor of being nice. Work is more pleasant when people aren’t actively sabotaging you because they don’t like you. That translates to less stress and more opportunity for you.
You can’t get ahead if no one knows what you’ve done, so tell people what you’ve done. You can’t get ahead if other people claim credit for your work, so claim credit first. You can’t get ahead if you can’t demonstrate a record of accomplishment, so document your successes. These are three different aspects of the issue, and we’ll cover each of them in this article.
Tell People What You’ve Done
All the introverts, people from the South, and people from the Midwest just curled up in a corner. Look, I get it, a lot of us are raised in a culture of modesty. This is a holdover from the puritanical days, and for the most part it’s a good thing. It’s tiresome when people wander around bragging about how good they are. But that doesn’t mean you should be silent about how good you are.
Instead, there are three important times when you should be vocal about things you have done, and those are:
- Right after you do the thing
- At a performance review
- When a similar thing needs doing
Right after you do the thing, whatever the thing is, that’s a time for self-promotion. Make sure your boss knows you did the thing. Make sure your coworkers know you did the thing. Post it on social media, talk about it at church, take a victory lap. Get your name in other people’s mouths in a good way.
At your performance review, you should absolute talk yourself up. This is the time to make sure your boss knows what a shiny treasure they have in you. Be shiny. Talk about things you’ve done, and make sure you make a big deal out of the things that went well. Make sure your boss knows your value.
Then, whenever something else like that thing you did comes up and needs doing, remind people that you did a thing like that before. This serves two purposes: it reminds others that you did a thing well, and it gets your foot in the door of opportunity because you did the other thing and therefore have experience.
Now be Nice: Avoid condescension at all costs. Avoid self-adulation at all costs. Thank others who helped you succeed, and acknowledge their work. If you follow these rules, claiming credit isn’t such a departure from a modest path.
For example, let’s say you’ve just finished a big project at work. You’re in a staff meeting. How should you claim credit?
Wrong Way: “Hey everybody, you should know that I totally rocked out this project! Did you see how awesome I was? None of you losers could have done it, but I had it nailed on day one. Beth, you want me to take over your thing, I could turn it around in three seconds! Paul! Paaaaullly!!! I did good stuff with your team. Rock star over here, y’all!”
*Phil stares daggers at you from the corner, in full knowledge that his group had actually assisted Paul. He marks you on his list of Those Who Shall Perish When the Gate of Yog-Sothoth Opens. Yes, Phil is a Cthulu cultist. You never know about your coworkers.*
Right Way: “Hey everyone, I just wanted to say thanks for all your help on the big project. We completed on time and on schedule, the customer was happy, the boss is happy, and I couldn’t have done it without your help. Beth, thanks for your assistance, I know it put your team back a little bit. Phil, thanks for your help on the interface with Paul’s group. It was great working with you guys!”
See the difference? The Wrong Way guy is an ass. He’s claiming credit, but also implying that he’s better than everyone else and claiming work he didn’t do. The Right Way guy is making sure that everyone knows he did a good job, but also making sure that other people get their share of the accolades and making sure they know he values their support. Wrong Way guy is going to drive people away, and possibly get his soul eaten by a Shoggoth from the Nether Realms. Right Way guy is a team player. Be the Right Way guy.
Claim Credit First
Claiming credit is a lot easier if you proactively claim credit, as opposed to waiting for someone to acknowledge you. This actually is an issue for patent law — the person who can demonstrate that they have a working prototype and is the first to file the claim is the person who gets the patent. Same thing happens when claiming credit.
The point here is to prevent other people from swooping in and claiming credit for your work. You might think that other people are amenable to reason and will figure out who actually did the work, and if you think that, you should prepare for massive disappointment. Good bosses and good coworkers will expend the effort to figure out who is doing what; do not assume you will have good bosses or good coworkers. Claim credit for your successes before others have the chance.
The easiest way to do this is to simply walk over to your boss’s office and let them know that you did a thing immediately after you did the thing. Don’t wait for staff meetings or performance reviews. Get your hat in the ring early. The people who matter should be in no doubt that the accomplishment was yours.
Now be Nice: NEVER CLAIM CREDIT FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S WORK.
And the corollary: NEVER CLAIM CREDIT FOR SOMETHING THAT ISN’T DONE.
These are dick moves and are ultimately self-defeating, because eventually you will get a boss who actually checks up on things, and in the meantime you’re alienating your coworkers. All of your coworkers. The people who you cut will talk to the others, the grapevine will notice if you’re taking credit for castles in the sky, and nothing good comes from people whispering behind your back.
Take credit for your work and only your work. If multiple people were involved, get that group together and then go to your boss so you can all claim credit at once.
Document Your Successes
There’s an old saying ascribed to the FBI: if it’s not on paper, it didn’t happen. This is entirely true when it comes to performance reviews and other incidents where you have to go in front of your boss and list the things you’ve done. It’s very much worth your while to keep a formal record of things you’ve done for which you can claim credit.
This doesn’t have to be complicated— it’s just a list. But you should include enough information to remind yourself of the following items:
- What was done?
- Who was the customer?
- How does it help (the boss, the company, the customer, etc.)?
Once you have these things written down, it becomes relatively trivial to trot out whatever you need for interviews, resume building, performance reviews, etc.
Now be Nice: Don’t go waving this list of accomplishments all over the place. This is a prop to help you remember what you’ve done, not a blunt instrument to bash people with the undeniable fact of your awesomeness. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to wave that flag, but not in a way that makes you look like a braggart. The idea is to compile a tool to help you look like you know what you’re doing, not to make you look like you’re rubbing it in everyone’s face.
Claim the Credit You Are Due
To sum up, make sure people know what you’ve done, claim credit for the things you’ve done before other people steal it from you, and keep track of your accomplishments so that you can claim credit for them in the future. Avoid being pompous or condescending, make sure you recognize your friends, and make sure they get credit too.
One other thing — keep track of the people around you who have a track record of stealing credit. These people are toxic; they can and will cost you raises, promotions, and stress. There’s usually at least one at every job, and it can be hard to figure out what they’re doing if they’re sneaky about it. So pay attention to the water cooler talk; the grapevine usually knows about these people. If you find one in your group, establish a line of communication to your boss and make sure they know what you’re working on.
Credit where credit is due, that’s what you’re shooting for. The Joker said, if you’re good at something never do it for free. Allen says, if you’re doing the work make sure you’re reaping the rewards.
¹In my experience, anyway. There are a few industries where asshole behavior is tolerated, and even encouraged, but they are few and far between. Not all of us can be Wall Street hedge fund managers.